Holiday Relationships

Holiday Relationships

This time of year is full of social gatherings – family meals, holiday parties, work parties, New Year’s parties, etc. It can be a very challenging time of year for people for various reasons, including anxieties surrounding social engagements. People find themselves “forced” to interact with coworkers, family members, friends, and strangers in a myriad of potentially uncomfortable social situations. I often hear people in therapy (and outside of therapy) discuss their dread at having to attend certain gatherings and engage with people who they find to be condescending, inappropriate, awkward, overwhelming, or in some other way negative to be around.

It would be impossible to address (much less help change) in this article all the many reasons why people feel negative emotions regarding social engagements this time of year. However, I hope to bring your attention to the main area you can control within all the potential holiday chaos, which is your internal relationship with someone or something. I spoke in a prior blog post about self-fulfilling prophecies and how our internal narrative about someone else can actually create and maintain a negative relationship with them without us realizing it. Now, as an aside, I recognize that there are individuals in many people’s lives that have caused considerable pain and distress and it can be very hard to be around them and not feel a myriad of negative emotions. What I am advocating though, is an assessment of how you talk to yourself about a situation (e.g., family meal, work party) or a relationship (e.g., “Aunt Jane is such a mean person, she never has anything nice to say.”). Even something as simple as “I really don’t want to go to this party, it is going to be so boring, awkward, etc…” can create such a negative internal relationship with that event that it becomes hard for it to play out otherwise.

If you are going to be attending an event/party, why not spend some energy shifting your narrative and self-talk about it? Each situation or interaction provides an opportunity to overcome a fear, connect to a new person, improve a relationship, or learn something new. Even seemingly mundane thoughts such as “I am so awkward” or “Tom is so weird” can be unhelpful labels that only serve to reinforce negative interactional patterns. You certainly don’t have to spend 20 minutes talking with that cousin who demeans your interests and boasts about their accomplishments, but you also don’t have to spend 24 hours before a holiday family gathering creating and reinforcing anxieties about what could happen, who might say something negative, or whether you might say the “wrong thing” in a conversation. We all have completely subjective, unique relationships with ourselves and others that are worth evaluating and shifting, especially if they create distress and negativity within us. Let other peoples’ emotions and dysfunctions be their own, and you focus on loving/accepting yourself and maintaining an internal peacefulness and stillness regardless of external circumstances. Easier said than done, I know, and it is a process that must be practiced, but at least you are not reliant on others to change in order to feel comfortable, positive, or happy. Uncle John and Aunt Jane might still have an overly impassioned political discussion at dinner, but you will be less prone to being emotionally hijacked by it.

It’s hard to believe that November is here and the holidays are upon us. For many people this is an exciting and joyful time of year, filled with family and friend gatherings, Christmas music on the radio, and Christmas decorations and lights – not to mention attending parties, shopping for presents, decorating the house, and sending out Christmas cards. For other people, these thoughts lead to different emotions. For them, the holidays are filled with grief, stress, anxiety, and dread. They may have experienced death, divorce, lost friendships, or other challenging situations over the past year. Or perhaps they’re already struggling with anxiety or depression or just not content with their life. No matter which of these categories you fall into or if you are somewhere in between, it’s important to approach the holidays intentionally so that the season can be filled with as much peace and calmness as possible.

For many, the fun and excitement of the holidays often bring about increased anxiety, stress, and sadness for those already struggling with generalized anxiety, social anxiety, depression, disordered eating, alcohol and drug use, or conflictual relationships. Most mental health providers agree that one of the biggest sources of stress associated with the holidays is unrealistic expectations. We should get the Christmas cards out, we should have all our shopping done, we should be grateful, and we should be merry. Try not to “should” on yourself. Reframing those should statements and being more forgiving of yourself makes a big difference. The Christmas cards might not get out in time and that’s okay. The shopping will get done eventually. Have you ever not gotten your shopping done?

Here are a few suggestions to focus on now to help make this year’s holidays less stressful and more enjoyable:

· Handle potential stressors sooner rather than later: Figure out your plans in advance and stick to them, try to get stuff done early without going over the top, and be realistic about which tasks and obligations are possible and which are not.

· Take care of yourself: Get enough sleep and exercise and maintain your normal routine as much as possible.

· Do something simple for someone else: Bake cookies for a neighbor you know is going through a hard time, volunteer in your community, or call a friend or family member you haven’t spoken to in a while.

· Be open to new traditions: As life changes, so does the way we celebrate the holidays and those we celebrate with – even your favorite traditions were at one point “new” traditions.

· Laugh: Watch a funny Christmas movie or the latest SNL Christmas special, or tell funny stories about past Christmases or Christmas gifts.

· Give yourself grace: It’s normal to not always feel jolly this time of year, but if you start to feel worse, reach out to a friend or mental healthcare professional.

We have covered taking care of ourselves this holiday season, but what about caring for others? Many people in our community give to others during this time of year in different ways- they give to family, they give to friends, and they give to those less fortunate. I am always amazed at the many ways people in Greenville serve others during the holidays. My goal this holiday season is to also think about those loved ones in my life who may be feeling particularly lonely, sad, anxious, or stressed this year for different reasons. Maybe it’s an old friend you haven’t seen in a while or someone who has lost a loved one recently. Maybe it’s a neighbor who doesn’t have family in the area or simply someone whose day would be made by hearing from you. A simple note or phone call saying “I’m thinking about you this season. How are you really doing?” might make a bigger impact than you could imagine. Letting other people know that you care and that they matter might be the best gift you can give someone this holiday.

I am grateful for you reading this and Happy, Happy Thanksgiving!

Check out this link for some additional ideas especially for those dealing with grief this holiday: